As an ex travel writer I’ve spent more time waiting in hotel lobbies than I care to admit.

To be honest I rather enjoyed the experience; the time provided good people watching opportunities, your room (hopefully) was just a short wait away, and the forced idleness was a chance to decompress after a long flight.

And then there’s the new MIQ “virtual lobby” which was introduced to give those wanting to book a room in one of our managed isolation facilities – a better, fairer experience.

The previous system was the source of constant complaints and saw users glued to their computers, constantly refreshing the MIQ page in the hope of securing a spot.

They rarely did.

Although a virtual lobby was never going to solve the fundamental problem of demand far outstripping room supply, it was sold as a far more equitable and streamlined system; one that negated the efforts of the more tech savvy to jump the queue using bots and scripts and give users a more transparent view of where they stood.

But, as we found out yesterday, getting stuck in MIQ’s virtual hotel lobby is a particular kind of online hell; yes, now you know where you stand in the queue, but if you’re 15 780th – that’s not particularly helpful and pretty dispiriting.

There were 3205 new rooms released in New Zealand’s MIQ facilities across September, October, November and December and hopeful travellers from all over the world logged in at 8 am on Monday in an attempt to book one. 

Everyone expected it to be busy, no-one expected that an estimated 25 000 would turn up – many only to get a message like this.

Here’s how the virtual lobby works. 

You register and then log on up to an hour before the lobby opens – that means getting up at 4 or 5 am if you’re in Australia which is where most of those wanting to book an MIQ room come from according to MIQ’s data. 

From there it’s a lottery as to whether you’ll be let into the booking system itself from the lobby.

That’s because your place in the queue is randomly selected. But if you are lucky enough to be at the front of the queue you will gain access to the Managed Isolation Allocation System.

Once you’re there you’ve still got a bit of work ahead of you. 

Despite the system granting users 48 hours to confirm their flight details once they have secured their voucher – some reported that they’d gone and hurriedly bought airline tickets that corresponded to the date of their newly approved MIQ stay only to return to the system to find their spot hadn’t been saved.

Another criticism was that the system has no way for users to differentiate themselves according to circumstances or any form of categorisation or grouping – some travellers may have better reasons than others, for example. 

While that’s true, building a system with that kind of versatility – something similar to our immigration points system perhaps – would be a massive and very resource heavy undertaking.

Supply vs demand

While there’s no limit on how many people can wait in the lobby – once all rooms have been taken, the lobby is closed and anyone in the queue is told they’ve missed out.

MIQ considers each room release an “independent event” and says that, at this stage, “there will be no prioritisation for people who missed out in the last room release.” 

If you were number 3201 in the queue you’ll just have to wait until MIQ announce new room releases and start the process all over again; or pray on getting lucky and securing a room if another user can’t book flights or drops out for some other reason.

By 10.07am on Monday all spots for November and December had gone.

For every heartwarming story of someone lucky enough to secure one of those 3205 rooms (Stuff reported how Desmond Gosling finally got a spot for his Vietnamese wife who he hasn’t seen in two years) there were many, many more stories of those who missed out.

Joint Head of MIQ, Megan Main released a statement that attempted to soothe the feelings of the many thousands who had spent hours online in vain, their loved ones still oceans away. 

“I know many thousands of people missed out on vouchers in today’s release. I want to reassure people that there are still several thousand vouchers still to be released through to the end of the year. They will get other chances. There will be another large release of a few thousand vouchers early next week and there may also be another smaller one later this week.”

That won’t satisfy many who consider the entire experience a cruel game with the odds stacked against them.

Wellington telco engineer Jonathan Brewer, who has been stuck in Singapore for months trying to book an MIQ spot, told the Herald – “This system is designed for selling concert tickets, not for helping people get home. I don’t think anyone involved in this project is going to be putting it on their CV. I know I wouldn’t.”

Granted – missing out on a spot is going to hit a lot harder than missing out on tickets to Beyonce at Spark Arena – but this seems less a tech issue (apparently the system worked as designed and didn’t crash, like it did in March) – than a policy one.

At a time when many of our 25 000 hotel rooms are standing empty, MBIE seems reluctant to open up more facilities as MIQ options – (about 6500 rooms are used for MIQ purposes.)

Andrew Milne, associate deputy secretary of Management Isolation and Quarantine, has said that a number of other facilities are being considered but stated that – “There are a lot of complex issues that need to be considered for operating MIQ facilities, including workforce supply to support our operations, suitability of the hotels and proximity to hospital facilities and appropriate transport hubs.”

Our government has access to some of our smartest tech brains in its battle against Covid – (I wrote here about Pavan Vyas and the RUSH digital team developing our celebrated Covid tracer app) – but I’m not sure how technology could solve the fundamental problem here: too few rooms, too many people.

A better GUI might let users down a little gentler, but that’s about it.

Until the Cabinet decides to fundamentally change our approach to Covid, add more facilities, or allow travellers to self-isolate at home in certain circumstances, expect MIQ’s virtual hotel lobby to be the biggest gathering in town for a good while yet.